I could be one of those annoying people you love to hate.
I’m vegetarian, I grow food in the backyard, and I have solar panels on my roof. I offset the natural gas I use for heating each year and keep the thermostat low in winter. I proselytize regularly about the dangers of climate change in my day job and I have been talking excitedly to friends about electric vehicles for years.
And yet, when my wife and I had to buy a new car last winter, we bought a combustion-engine vehicle. I have been asking myself why ever since.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act means many more people are likely to take the plunge and go electric. The tax credits for EVs and state-administered rebates for home electrification are generous. They bring down the costs by more than half in some cases. This will tip the balance for many.
On passage of the bill, we immediately scheduled a visit from the heat pump contractor to get a quote for replacing our gas furnace. A heat pump hot water heater will be next, followed by additional solar panels to cope with the extra load. It felt like Christmas had arrived in August.
The Inflation Reduction Act won’t make the shift to electricity affordable for everyone. The upgrades typically still require a cash outlay. But the legislation will massively increase the market for electrification, bringing the price down for everybody and offering savings on energy bills across the board. It’s a big win for climate and for the pocketbooks of ordinary people.
It’s in my nature to fret for weeks before making a big decision. But there comes a moment when you have to decide to put the wheels in motion. This moment is not always rational and it’s the place we got hung up with the EV.
It boiled down to this: There is one trip we like to take each winter to a remote cabin that we could not make with an EV. (I explained the thinking in more detail to Stephen Lacey on his Carbon Copy podcast last March). The infrastructure in Montana coupled with the decrease in battery range in cold weather would make this trip impossible – for now – without a gas car. At the time it felt like a decent reason to hold fire on the EV.
A New York Times opinion piece on electric cars last week ran with this headline: “When Was the Last Time You Drove 300 miles?” Nationwide, ninety-five percent of vehicle trips are less than 30 miles (Twenty percent are less than one). My last trip over 300 miles was almost exactly a year ago. The point of the New York Times article was to suggest readers center their decision somewhere other than the maximum mileage achievable in an EV.
The essay struck a chord not only because of my thinking on the EV but also because it echoed the thought process last week on the heat pump. My mind immediately went to the really cold days we occasionally get in western Montana. Would the heat pump be enough to keep us warm?
The latest generation of heat pumps are good to -13 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -25 degrees Celsius). When was the last time you needed heat below -13 Fahrenheit? Records show it has been five winters since it dropped that low in my hometown. On that occasion, the low lasted only three hours and it was in the middle of the night. Extremely low temperatures are rare in my area and contractors are prohibited from installing a heat pump unless they know you have a back-up. Cold weather is unlikely to be an obstacle for modern heat pumps, even in Montana.
The problem, then, is not rooted in reality. It is rooted in our minds.
We tell ourselves a new technology like an EV or a heat pump must be a one-for-one replacement for the technology we currently use. But this isn’t exactly true. If we wanted an EV to be an exact replacement for gas and diesel cars, we would want to keep the childhood asthma and premature deaths from particulate emissions. We would want the constant urban noise caused by combustion engine vehicles, together with the trips to smelly gas stations. We would also want the forest fires, droughts, and extreme precipitation that come with fossil-fueled lifestyles.
It is because we don’t want these things that electrification is so desirable. And, yes, it’s a slightly different technology which means we need slightly different habits. Our perception of exactly where the costs and benefits lie will need to change. A small cost added here, a huge benefit gained over there.
Once a year, I may have to rent or borrow a gas-powered vehicle to go to that cabin. With a heat pump water heater, I may have to be conscious of it taking a little longer to warm back up after a shower. I’ll also need to accept an additional piece of hardware on the side of my house for my central heating.
But the benefits will certainly be worth it. Children not dying from preventable lung diseases has considerable appeal to me. A house without the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, a car charged up and ready to go every morning, and fuel prices not so dependent on geopolitics are all compelling benefits. The savings in dollars will be nice too.
I should have known that decision-making is not simply economic and not completely rational. I am pulled by emotions and biases, and often succumb to the chatter of my peers. But it would be a shame if the energy transition was hobbled by self-delusion. I hardly ever drive 300 miles at a pop. And the inconvenience of borrowing a car when I do, or stopping at a charger to grab lunch, is trifling.
I need to remember this. Because at the end of the day, this much is clear. The hassles will be minor. They will far be outweighed by the beauty of life powered by the hum of clean electrons collected from a sun that sparkles in a big, blue sky.
Solar panel image by tolexo31 via Unsplash